Nella Larsen Was a Genius & The Power of Race

My Father's Hidden Life--A Story of Race and Family Secrets

In the book, One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life – A Story of Race and Family Secrets, Bliss Broyard examines her father’s choice to pass as white, despite his clear multiracial heritage. In the process of denying his ancestry, Anatole Broyard abandoned his parents and siblings. He chose instead to embrace life in Southport, CT with his self-made family: Bliss, her brother Todd, and his wife Sandy.

The topic of “passing,” and the fact that many in the U.S. seem so surprised by the practice, as evidenced by Bliss Broyard’s surprise that her father chose to hide his identity, got me more interested in representations and stories of passing in the U.S.  While “passing” is generally understood to be a phenomenon of Black people or people of color, with pale skin, passing for white, I think there are many forms of passing. We can pass or shield our gender identity, sexuality, language ability, or illness.

Perhaps, we find it particularly fascinating when people “pass” ot hide their race, because our culture holds the belief that you can see difference. And in fact we demand evidence of difference. As Foucault said in reference to sex, “we must see it speak.” With multiracial identity, I wonder if a large part of the fascination, is in seeing the results of said “sex.” In “seeing,” and witnessing sex speak for itself in the result of the progeny it produces. There’s a reason that multiracial identity was so often referred to as “miscegnation;” we were caught up in, and fascinated by, the sexual act. A prurient interest that contributes to the way society loads phenotypical identities with sexual weight.

Nella Larsen, who I think was a genius, brillantly played with these ideas in her novella Passing. Larsen juxtaposed two womyn, both of African-American heritage, one cavalierly passing, and the other not. The book is generally cited to be about racial passing, however, a close reading renders other forms of passing, most notably around sexuality.

In my research about passing, I came across the story of Anita Hemmings, the first African-American womyn to attend Vassar.

Hemmings

Anita Hemmings was the daughter of two African-American parents, both from Virginia. For those who follow history closely, you may notice that Anita shares her last name with Sally Hemmings, a slave womyn, who was Thomas Jefferson’s mistress or several years, and who bore him several children. Anita attended Northfield Academy (currently Northfield Mt. Hermon) and then applied and was accepted to Vassar, where she passed as white. Anita graduated in 1897 – 40 years before Vassar officially admitted African-American students.  Gotcha white supremacy!

Anita was extremely accomplished – voted the most beautiful in her class, academically successful, and also a strong singer. She was “outed,” when her jealous roommate had her father investigate the Hemmings family. The investigator, of course discovered that Anita’s family was Black – residing at 9 Sussex Avenue, in what is now Roxbury. Anita also had a brother Frederick, who attended MIT, but wasn’t able to pass -he attended MIT as a person of color.

The story doesn’t end there. Hemmings was able to graduate. She became a librarian, and then married a young doctor, Dr. Andrew Love, a graduate of Meharry Medical School – prestigious Black medical school. Dr. Love was also passing. Andrew and Anita relocated to New York, had children, and never told those children about their heritage. In another twist, Anita’s daughter, Ellen Love went on to attend Vassar, never knowing the history of her mother’s experience there. She too passed, though unwittingly, and received her BA in 1927. The same meddling roommate, upon learning that Anita’s daughter was attending Vassar, attempted to out her as well, privately writing to then President of the college – who responded tersely, that the administration wasn’t even sure “if Ellen knew she had negro blood.”  Ellen Love, did in fact not know about her Black heritage. She didn’t discover her identity until she visited her grandmother on Martha’s Vineyard. She kept the secret and  went on to become a theatre actress on Broadway. The family didn’t learn of their heritage until Ellen Love’s death.

Learn more about Anita Hemmings here: www.aavc.vassar.edu/vq/articles/Anita_Hemmings

Makes you wonder about our ideas about race and phenotype. The assertion of purity, either when we as a society reference race or sexuality. Spectrums exist and our denial of those is troubling, to say the least. In a study done in teh ’50s by a sociology professor, it was estimated that as many as 1 in 5 identifiable white people has Black ancestry, and 1 in 10 white people have ancestry of color.

Increasingly, I am beginning to believe, that white people (whiteness), like heterosexuals (heterosexuality), are a carefully constructed and protected myth….

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3 Responses to “Nella Larsen Was a Genius & The Power of Race”

  1. molecularshyness Says:

    This is a great post. I’m glad I came through here.

  2. i’m reading passing right now. i feel like nella larson is a secret treasure i’ve dicsovered. (She also wrote about a biracial school teacher who leaves an all black school because it stifles its students) struggles to find her place and then seeks help from the white side of her familyi’d never heard of her until i was reading a book about society’s notions of good and bad hair, skin color issues etc. wallace thurman’s book the blacker the berry was also mentioned in this book, another harlem renaisance era writer who explores the issue of race. In the blacker the berry, its lighter skinned black people who reject a dark skinned daughter who’s only personal pride is her ‘good hair’ She then flees her rural home for harlem only to find the same treatment awaits her.
    The act of ‘passing’ has awful consequences coupled with the potential advantages: leaving your family, your past, yourself. No one would admit they would do so, but how many secretly must want to! So many have done it in the past, it would be naive to think that no one today considers it or actually passes. The world is different today, but not perfect. I wouldn’t blame anyone for doing so.

  3. whiteness is definitely a carefully constructed and protected myth

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